In the summer of 2009, a Saudi Arabian family living in Medina moved out of their home of fifteen years after they could no longer endure an extended period of harassment they had suffered at the hands of a genie. He stole their cell phones, left threatening voicemails, and threw stones at them. To remedy the situation, the family chose the obvious route: they took the genie to court. There was some trouble getting the defendant to appear before the magistrates—the Sharia court acknowledged “difficulty” in determining the truthfulness of the plaintiff’s claim—but the incident was not particularly startling, if you remember that humanity and genies have been at war with each other since God created Adam.
Let us henceforth call genies by their appropriate name: jinn. The word genie has its roots in French through the Latin word genius; jinn comes from Arabic, from a root meaning conceal or cover with darkness. And let us remember that jinn are real. At least as far as the Islamic conception of material reality goes. In the West they’ve been relegated to the provinces of folklore, fantasy, literature, and the occasional Disney movie. But all throughout the Islamic world, jinn are as real as you or I; there is even a sura in the Qur’an named for them, “Al-Jinn.” And unlike the simple image we have of some helpful servant whom we might summon from a lamp to bestow upon us untold riches, jinn encompass a wide range of spirit creatures, all with differing jobs and connections to the human realm. But they have been largely disappeared by humankind; much of their history lies scattered and dismembered in apocryphal sources and vulgar traditions, banished into dark corners by those who would seek to bury their troublesome memory.
As the broad outlines of the story go, humans and jinn were created by Allah, the former from clay, the latter from a smokeless fire. They were both endowed with freedom of will and the opportunity for salvation. He created the jinn on a Thursday and humans on a Friday, but according to some stories, hundreds of thousands of years may have elapsed between those two days, during which time the jinn had free reign over the earth. As the thirteenth-century cosmographer Zakariya al-Qazwini describes in his book Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing, “The favors of God were multiplied upon them, and they had government, and prophecy, and religion, and law.” Jinn assumed different forms, traveled without restriction around, and even beneath, the planet, and when they approached the ends of their lives, they were able to rejuvenate themselves—so that by the time the Angel of Death came for them, he found them in the first bloom of youth.
But as the jinn bred and their numbers swelled, they divided into sects and began to war with each other; al-Qazwini says they “transgressed and offended and made wickedness to abound in the earth.” Allah, displeased, would put down one rebellious group after another, but the cycle of factiousness and violence went on. Finally he turned for help to a faithful jinn named Iblis, who lived in the heavens. Assisted by an army of angels, Iblis attacked and killed many members of a band of rebellious jinn with a flaming sword, permanently exiling the rest to caves, the sea, and a magical mountain called Qaf—which, according to Islamic legend is a mountain that bounds the human world on all sides.
And then Thursday was over, and humanity came on the scene. Allah asked Iblis to prostrate before Adam, but the jinn scoffed at the notion that a superior being like himself made of smokeless fire should kneel down before one made only of clay. Allah condemned Iblis, gave him the new name Shaitan (Satan), allowing him only to appear before holy men and prophets to test their faith and resolve with his temptations, and to live the role of the iconic outcast who paid for his freedom of opinion and self-worth with everlasting damnation.
Matters weren’t much better for Iblis’ compatriots, but the jinn soldiered on, in the lands of Qaf and, closer to home, those of pre-Islamic Arabia. They managed to become an integral part of the material and imaginary universes of the pagan Arabs. Among the jinn known to them were throngs of devils and demons, manifestations of the jinn, occupied in a variety of roles. And there were others: Marid, rebellious, evil jinn who had strayed from the path of Allah, of whom the most powerful and mutinous were ifrits; amir, jinn who inhabited human households; arvah, those visible to the eye; and ghilaan, a class of magicians who used incantations to change their shapes. There were even dwarf jinn.
Encounters between the parties were not uncommon. One trait commonly ascribed to jinn is the desire to copulate with humans. Male jinn liked it so much that sometimes they would try and surreptitiously join in during sex between human men and women. One man witnessed his wife’s vagina emitting flames from a jinn making congress with her while she slept. And such interspecies unions bore fruit. When a child was born from a coupling between humans and jinn, it was termed khunnas. One born from a union between humans and demons was called amluq. Humans were less likely to pursue jinn, however, particularly females, as they were reputed to have violent tempers. One man who had married a jinn female received a good thrashing with a camel bone at her hands before she left him.
Jinn also had influence on human emotions and thoughts. Another manifestation, called Qareen, were devil companions appointed to every human being by Allah from among the jinn who, like Iblis, whispered evil things into their hearts and led them astray. Such was their influence that they were believed responsible for every inspirational work in pre-Islamic Arabia. Every poet was alleged to have a qareen devil of whom he was only a mouthpiece. A fantastic vision of the qareen given in one report shows him having a translucent body in the shape of a frog perched on the left shoulder bone of a man. It had a stinger like a mosquito’s, with which it actively probed the depths of the man’s heart and injected its message. Hassan ibn Thabit, the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite poet, would later claim that his skill in verse could be credited to a female jinn who knocked him down in the street, bore down on his chest, and ordered him to recite three verses.
Islam reasserted the authority of humans and enacted a clear segregation between them and the jinn. Muhammad was a prophet to both humans and the jinn, and the Qur’an—as well as some Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet—addresses itself to both. But it scoffed at and censured those who attributed jinn partners to Allah: “Some men have sought the help of jinn, but they misled them into further error.”
Islam also curtailed their movements. Augurs among pagan Arabs had employed the jinn as spies in the heavens to overhear the council and discussions among the angels as they performed Allah’s commands. Based on reports of these spies, the augurs would make their predictions of the future. But when the jinn flew on their missions after the advent of Islam, they found the vaults of heaven closed, and guarded by strong warders and meteors. The augur lost his authority, and the jinn their employ.
Not all jinn found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The Al-Jinn sura in the Qur’an reports that a group of jinn converted to Islam when they heard an amazing recitation of the holy book. They had accepted the new order, but even they were subject to segregation, which came notably in the form of diet. The faithful jinn expressed a desire to have bones and dung as their exclusive foodstuffs, both of which they were awarded. The faithful among humans were proscribed from polluting either. When the faithful among the jinn picked up a bone and recited Allah’s name, flesh appeared on it.
But the majority of the jinn did not convert—the old enmity resurfaced, and the antagonistic stance hardened, opposition becoming more virulent. Reports of jinn possession and mischief began to increase, the smaller devils and demons also making their presences felt. They urinated into the ears of the faithful to make them miss the morning prayers, and made them bald by peeing on their heads. If the faithful opened their mouths too wide when they yawned, demons spat into them. If they started their meals without first reciting the name of Allah, the devils partook of the food with them and contaminated their diet. If the proper prayer was not recited before copulation, the devils shared in the pleasure, leaving their seed inside the woman’s womb right alongside the man’s: any child born from such congress was more susceptible to influence by jinn. Some demons had elephantine trunks, keeping them pressed against human hearts, which they swallowed the moment they wavered in their consciousness of the divine. Devils touched every newborn human child and made them cry; they followed the faithful to and from their destinations, hoping they would err in their actions; every marketplace and thoroughfare thronged with threats. Nor were our bodies safe. Devils walked around in men’s urinary tracts and gave them the illusion that they were relieving themselves. They also laid eggs in their anuses, deceiving them into thinking that they had farted. Demons slept in the nostrils of the faithful and polluted them; upon waking the nose had to be blown three times during ablutions to remove them—a task made all the more difficult by Valhaan, a special devil assigned to interrupting ablutions.
And while you may encounter a helpful jinn here or there, perhaps assisting Aladdin in his quest to win the heart of a sultan’s daughter in The 1,001 Nights, the incident with the Saudi family in 2009 indicates that the struggle between humanity and jinn has not been put to rest. And though humanity has triumphed for now—jinn, demons, ghouls, and devils have largely been pushed into oblivion—one wonders if humanity won’t encounter another antagonist some day whom Allah or nature props up over us. What will happen if we are ever made to suffer that kind of hostile takeover? Will we feel the curiosity and trepidation the jinn felt at our coming when an alien race makes its way to earth? Will we then follow in the footsteps of the jinn and refuse to convert to a new order? Will we be the rebels, perhaps called upon to unzip and do our part to keep those green alien egg-shaped heads bald? Will we too find ourselves shoved aside and left behind the screen of myth and fantasy? Perhaps. But if we’re smart, we’ll send a delegation into the lands of Qaf and make a strategic compact between ourselves and our one-time enemies against our new, hostile overlords.
c. 1690 / Sichuan
"Her nose was cold as ice, and her chill breath penetrated his very bones"
c. 700 / China
"According to plan, the corpse will transcribe the rite for obtaining hidden jewels and present it to the spellman."
c. 1860 / United States
"That the raps were produced by disembodied spirits many firmly believed. False communications were attributed to evil spirits."
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